Soumyaroop Majumdar on zoos and hybridism

While growing up in Kolkata, trips to the zoo were a regular family affair in the winter. I have always had a deep interest in wildlife and would look forward to these outings. Two years ago my cousins, in a bid to revive the family tradition, arranged a trip with their children and asked me to come along. My first impulse was to initiate a discussion about animal cruelty and how we inadvertently perpetuate colonial practices such as the capture and display of exotic animals. This was soon complicated by a genuine curiosity about the creatures the zoo might have acquired over the years and my habit even today, while crossing the adjacent bridge, of taking a peek into the elephant enclosure. I ended up not going, and my reputation as a dutiful uncle took a hit. But my inner discordance stayed on.

Like most ideas for poems, I let this one gestate, taking time to locate the space between pontification and defiance, renunciation and indulgence. At some point I remembered Cubanacan, the litigon, a star attraction at the zoo in the eighties. A litigon, bred successfully for the first time in the Alipore zoo, is a hybrid twice over: the offspring of a lion and a female tigon (a tigon in turn being the offspring of a tiger and a lioness). While trying to reconcile my own conflicts, the figure of the litigon seemed ideal to me, its mixed parentage an apt representation of the various fusions poetry can facilitate. However, I did not want a single image to tower over the rest.

I have always admired ‘The Jaguar’ by Ted Hughes and returned to it several times, and then had to forget it enough to begin writing. At the outset, I was wary of the metaphor of the cage. It has been used frequently and effectively in poetry. As I worked my way through the poem, and my own impulses of escape and rest, I kept reminding myself of a quote from J. Krishnamurti. While speaking on the imagined inner space and the fictions and realities of a centre, he tries to defuse an over-reliance on mulish searching: “I must accept there is no freedom. Then I can decorate my prison forever.”

Soumyaroop Majumdar’s ‘Alipore Zoo’ is published in the Winter 2019 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 109, No. 4.